How our personal connection with trees and nature brings greater understanding beyond data collection and analysis. How the tears of relationship feed the earth.
Online one thing guaranteed to cause lively, if not fierce, debate is the subject of anthropomorphism and those that regard trees as sacred. The debate is almost always a polarised argument between those who value the sacred and the scientific. But does it have to be this way?
What is so important about the word 'sacred' and why does it matter that some disagree with it? Of course, debate is healthy but sometimes the arguments against sacred connection border on hatred.
Anthropomorphism - A personal connection
Many members have favourite tree friends and many talk about these trees as ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’. They build up personal relationships with them. The most intense debates however seem to break out when some see a face or outline in a tree. ‘Pareidolia’, some grumble while others shout more loudly about others’ ‘need to humanise things’.
But, is this need to humanise a bad thing? I ask myself.
I don’t think it is. While yes, I do think it’s important to recognise and respect another living entity as a different species, I am not a believer in categorising everything in purely scientific terms.
‘Oh, but we must have order, we must have everything correctly labelled, else how else will we understand the world?’ Comes the refrain.
…hmmm …. Yes, well I can see how well that has served us up until now. Science, the final frontier in mankind’s knowledge… or is it?
I think it is important to decide with care what exactly we mean by human characteristics as increasingly it is being found that many animals, plants and fungi display what we have formerly described as human traits. Characteristics that as we believed human were the solely the province of our own experience and ability. It is a soft boundary and becoming increasingly evident it is just not known in what definite ways we are different.
Animals exhibit protective behaviour and will love and care for their young way beyond instinct. They also adapt their maternal (and paternal) behaviour to suit their environments. It is clear that it is incorrect to say that only humans feel emotions. Simply observing other species is a great way of learning.
My little dog Bella is very good at working out how to communicate with me and in return I have learned to understand her language too. She has a whole range of barks, body stances, ear setting and tail positions that all mean different things. I know when she is happy, sad, when she wants a drink, food or to play for example. When I am upset she shows concern by coming up to me and sitting next to me and putting her paw on me. This is the only time she performs this particular action, so not only is she able to understand my emotion but she is also able to empathise.
We could try to argue that domesticated animals have taken on human traits rather than having those traits innate of themselves, but as you can see from this image of an orangutan attempting to defend its home, that would be incorrect.
Trees too are also able to care for each other, as the wonderful book by German forester Peter Wohlleben shows in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. From starting out regarding trees as commodities he then came to regard them as living wonders.
"Life as a forester became exciting once again. Every day in the forest was was a day of discovery. This led me to unusual ways of managing the forest. When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines."
Science is a wonderful thing, we have discovered so much, our curiosity has led us to dissecting the origins of life itself. So, we learn facts, but do these facts lead to complete understanding?
We know a great deal, but we understand less than we did 10,000 years ago it would seem. Hunter gatherer societies have intimate understanding of the ecology they are a part of and this is why they are able to live in harmony with the landscape around them. Yes, it is a hard life to live in many ways but it is not a hard ‘death life’. It is a life lived with meaning, with connection and a deep understanding that permeates mind, body and soul.
What is a ‘death-life’? For the purposes of this discussion I’ve decided to call our modern way of living a ‘death-life’, when that way of living causes more death than fostering new life. Science can categorise, but it cannot connect. It takes a different type of intelligence to connect with each other, our surroundings and fellow creatures.
Science is a wonderful tool we can use but it is not a moral code.
Our modern way of life judges other beings by its own standards in that it dictates to us that humans must rule by reason and that being the highest standard by which one must live. However, think on the pronouncement, "not whether it reasons, but can it suffer?" by Jeremy Bentham. Reason has logic, but it does not have morals? If we operate from reason only, then where do our values sit? Values, I would argue, are only developed through experience, through deeper connection with others, with the world. Yet generation after generation are being born into families where value is based on material worth not soul worth.
The exterior landscape is only valued inasmuch as it aligns with material valuations. Furthermore, it is clear that this has led to a huge decline in nature connection when we look at the amount of time children spend outdoors, for example, which has declined to an average of just over four hours a week, compared to 8.2 hours a week when adults were children. 1 A sad and damning inditement for our time.
The way of reason has left no room for connection with our wild world either within or without. We evaluate, but we don’t feel and we don’t understand.
When AST members anthropomorphise trees, they are in fact connecting on another level other than reasoning and evaluating. They are using their senses to connect mind, body and soul in order to establish relationships. You can’t have a relationship with something or someone if you are evaluating it and assessing it. A collection of data will lead to an analysis and categorisation but it won’t connect you with any deeper understanding of what you are observing. To connect takes observation, contemplation and compassion. Then comes the realisation of the other as a living being, wanting to live, just as a human are living beings and want to live.
“Oh you know all the words and you’ve sung all the notes but you never quite learned the song “ The incredible string band.
This is why wonderful though science can be, it is never quite enough to fully explain life.
Deeper Connections - Different Values
What I am seeing in the AST online groups are many who are reaching out and exploring and communicating with their external world in a different way to what has been socially accepted. Not as something to be evaluated, held to account, and valued to a set list of categories but as a world that is a living conscious companion in their experience of life. By ‘seeing’ certain ‘human’ qualities within what they are observing they are in fact acknowledging something other-than-human that holds value beyond material worth. I think that the human qualities being layered on are not detracting from the other-being-ness but are a way of connecting. I think this is very challenging for some because it contradicts their world order, their value system and way of understanding the world and challenges their constructed reality.
It is, for some, a dangerous road to travel, allowing ones’ sense of self to expand and let in other realities. It’s a challenge because in doing so we let go of control and we allow some interior consciousness to emerge in bodily experiences and emotions. Instead of a habitual pattern of existence where most things can be measured and outcomes predicted, life becomes an exchange and as with any exchanges it requires input from both sides. For a culture not used to giving this is a challenge. Emotional exchange requires vulnerability. For a society armour plated against love and grief this is never going to be easy.
It sounds contradictory to recognise empathy and connect with another being when aligning with that being is done through ascribing human like qualities, but I would argue that this is the springboard to the journey of true exchange and connection.
The Consequences of Commodification
For those of you not satisfied by my observations thus far here are some scientific facts:
Our global commodity chains have enabled the transformation of millions of hectares of Brazilian forest into soya plantations for feeding factory farmed animals in Europe, China and elsewhere. 2
Across the world half the forests have already fallen 3; in the last three hundred years 12 million km2 have been felled and 4 million km2 of grasslands converted to agriculture. 4 This is a loss on the scale of Russia. 5
When you don’t have relationship, everything becomes a commodity. It is not a great step from categorising other beings to commoditising them. Science may bring us knowledge but it doesn’t bring wisdom. You need relationship to do that.
The Age of Reason?
And the deficit continues to grow: 3.6 million hectares of ancient rainforest were cut down in 2018. Most of the losses accounted for by loggers and ranchers in the Amazon. 6 The outcome is an overwhelmingly negative trajectory of population declines, species extinctions and ecological impoverishment.
People born since 2012 have inherited a planet with fewer than half the number of animals than those before 1970, and now we teeter on the cusp of a global free fall. 7 We are in the verge of exterminating a further million species. This is first and foremost by destroying habitats through their conversion to agriculture, combined with a phenomenon being called 'defaunation' (killing animals), climate breakdown and pollution.8
Science is a system of measuring and testing phenomena. However, just because something can't be tested doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Science has no idea whatsoever about how the cuckoo chick, who has never met its' real mother. It flies thousands of miles to Africa from Britain, to within a few hundred yards of where its mother came from. This happens. What is the 'explanation'? We can guess but science doesn't know.
To refer back to the orangutan above, I don't know how it is possible to be so far removed from reality to have no compassion for its suffering. It is our relationships, our connections with others that engender compassion. Sacred does not have to be about religion, sacred is about engendering reverence and respect.
So many things fall outside of our limited means of scientific testing. This is why we have art, music, poetry, drama, ritual, faith. Our imaginations weave a thread through the forest. My point is that people who have an understanding of the natural world as a spiritually connected place, where trees are alive and indeed sacred - are far less likely to harm that natural world.
We humans have had a complex and fascinating relationship with trees since our first incarnation. They house us, keeping us safe, give us material to build with, feed us fruit, nuts, berries and drinks. They give us medicinals, provide fuel for our fire, they give us fixed points in the landscape for direction, and provided us with sacred groves to worship in. We express the ideas of personal growth and family through the design of a tree. It is little little wonder we attach sacred qualities and humanity to them. They have given so much to our quality of life. Hence why I named the group Ancient and 'Sacred' Trees. AST is about celebrating our personal connections with trees.
AST has an ethos of beauty as activism, meaning people will only protect what they love so lets' spread beauty and inspiration. The orangutan above however was one of the beings who prompted me to push for AST to also become involved in tree planting and protection and this has now recently been established as a practical project.
This is a flag in the ground for a different kind of connection, activism and cultural change.
To go back to the subject of pets here is the thing, if the general population saw 60% of all their pet cats or 60% of all their pet dogs killed then there would be outrage. But that is because we are connected to our pets. We have bonds with them, we have feelings, we have stories. In other words when we connect personally with other beings we engender compassion.
Habitat destruction is one of the greatest sources of wildlife decline and suffering. 9 As is the epic unabated animal killing taking place across land and seas.
For the fact is that we have caused the loss of over 60% of wild animals since 1970.10 If we equated this to humans we would feel the full horror of our actions.
The hard fact of life is that other beings must die that we might live but we do have a choice about how we live. A good life should bring a good death but the lives we are living at present are only serving to sacrifice all of life to a death culture, this death-life I talked about earlier.
Life, it is beautiful, it is terrible. Our existence is a dance of life and death intimately entwined. When we begin to engage with this fact of our existence intimately then we can begin to reverse the damage.
Feeling and engaging is more powerful than thinking alone.
Cultural Colonialism - The War Against Plants, Animals and Land
So where did the conflict on our sacred connection with trees and nature start? In Europe we have to go back to the seventh century and the reign of Charlemagne and his sustained attack on the animistic beliefs of the natives. Christianity was already deeply engaged in a mission to convert pagans from their worship of trees, stones and water. It waged a battle on anthropomorphism and at the heart of all of this was the bear.
In this it saw the bear as, "a creature of the devil. This was not because it was endowed with such prodigious strength that no other animal could defeat it but primarily because it strangely resembled man, so much so that human conduct was attributed to it. It was also the animal around which clustered oral traditions, uncontrollable beliefs, and the superstitions that were the most difficult to eradicate." 11
Charlemagne used the Christian doctrine to destroy the fabric of the societies of the nations he was conquering and subjugating to Frankish rule. He did this by waging war simultaneously on bears, trees, and forests home to the bears. He cut down the trees and and conducted mass slaughters of bears in an attempt to subjugate the animism of the indigenous populations. This forced the bears to the very edges of the human world up into the mountains and in many areas exterminated them all together.
(Here in England I am fascinated by our indigenous heritage and most especially with reference to our bear history which I have been studying for a number of years. I am soon to start my archaeology and humanities MA in Death and Memory in which our indigenous bear heritage will be the focus for my thesis. It is my conviction that by understanding the living links to our past that we can forge a sustainable path into the future. )
The legacy this empire building left behind continues to this day with trees, animals, and the land no longer equals to man, but its' subjects to be used at will or exterminated.
The Power of Story
So for those set against anthropomorphism and sacred connection there is more at stake here than facts and figures quoted underlying the objections. In making connections with nature that we challenge the current world view. Perhaps it is fear as well as cultural conditioning underneath the need to ‘keep-to-the-facts’. A modern world built on rationalism alone will never cope with circumstances that reach beyond what can be labelled and neatly boxed up.
Richard Powers suggests in his novel The Overstory (2018), the best arguments do not change a person's mind; instead, what is needed is a good story. 12 He is right and the best stories were given to us by the earth, in some cases several thousand years ago. Stories take us places in our minds, bodies and hearts that mere thoughts and facts and figures do not. This is why I share #wildwisdom #soulstories to explore as well as #treeteaching to explore the world within and without.
It will be by embracing our feelings instead of hiding them that will change the world. This will happen when we listen to our soul stories instead of exclusively reading data. Those stories will connect us to the journeys our ancestors took. Not just walking along physical tracks, but traversing the inner world within. When we connect within we connect without.
It’s dangerous territory of course, because the world of the imagination is one of beauty and terror and chaos and transformation and a wild knowing. Our modern world, naturally enough, has no room for stepping out of suburbia into wild land. Knowing this one can quite understand why such personal connections within the AST groups can occasionally provoke such anger in a few individuals.
When Tears Feed The Earth - A Living Inheritance
Yet connect we must. Connection brings wonder, and love. Inevitably it brings grief. That was something our ancestors knew intimately and, if we are to change our current trajectory, we will have to know it intimately too. For if we don’t it will come knocking at our door and take what we love most.
What really matters is that we love trees. We may all walk different paths, be they scientific or sacred, Christian or Pagan, but those paths are lined with trees and the splendour of nature. In Ethiopia for example, it is the Christian forest churches that are preserving the country's last remaining forests. Putting differences aside and knowing that each of us comes from a place of love is what matters. Wether we believe in the sacred or not we can have differences and still honour each other, trees and nature. As I say when arguments of this type break out in the online groups, it is the common ground we all stand upon that brings us together.
May you enjoy the beauty of the day as the wind coaxes the leaves to sing the song of the land.
Go outside and sit under a tree and feel what it means to be human, to be part of this ecosystem and don’t leave until you come back moved by something you can’t explain.
As my beautiful wise friend, the late Anna Ziman, Open to the Goddess, said,
Let your tears fall, they feed the earth.
Coming in the next few months: AST tree planting and protection memberships and courses. Message me with what you would like to see. What membership rewards would you like? What would you like to learn/engage with? I would love to know your thoughts. Let's work together to cultivate our Green and Growing CommuniTree.
PS: If you have found this article informative and are moved to do something practical, take a look at the AST world tree planting and protection project. This brings practical aid to trees and our wild cousins with whom we share their planet. It also protects human communities, their indigenous heritage, saves many from child trafficking and their families from slavery. It contributes towards combatting climate change and so much more. When you plant and protect trees you are helping our Green and Growing Community in return you get an ecard, certificate or teeshirt.
1 - The Guardian 27 Jul 2016 Children spend only half as much time playing outside as their parents did
2 - Lymbery P (2017) Dead Zone: Where the wild things were. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, UK.
3 - Vince G (2014) Adventures in the Anthropocene. Chatto & Windus, London, UK.
4 - Hall M (2011) Plants as Persons: A philosophical botany. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, USA.
5 - World Bank (2019) Surface area: Russian Federation.
6 - Carrington D (2019) 'Death by a thousand cuts': vast expanse of rainforest lost in 2018.
7 - Waughray D (2018) On The Today Programme, 23 January.
White L (1967) The historical roots of our ecological crisis. Science 155: 1203–7.
8 - IPBES (2019), Media Release: Nature's dangerous decline 'unprecedented'; species extinction rates 'accelerating'. IPBES, 6 May.
9 - Czech B (2013) The imperative for steady state economics for wild animal welfare. In: Bekoff M, ed. Ignoring Nature No More: The case for compassionate conservation. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL, USA.
10 - WWF (2018) Living Planet Report. Gland, Switzerland.
11 - Pastoreau M (2011) The Bear: History of a Fallen KingThe Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
12 - Powers R (2018) The Overstory. William Heinemann, London, UK.